Donnchadh Tiernan spoke to Brett Morgan about his documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which uses material from the Cobains’ personal archives in an in-depth examination of the Nirvana frontman’s childhood, music career and untimely death.
How much audio and video had you at your disposal?
In excess of 800 to a 1,000 hours of material – the bulk of that would have been VHS/camcorder footage of early Nirvana gigs. The real gold was all the stuff I’d been presented with by Kurt’s immediate family and that was all the material that had never seen the light of day and that made up the bulk of our film – that was about 30 hours of material. The 500 hours or so of concert footage wasn’t that much of a burden in terms of designing the narrative.
The footage you got from his family – was that just him as a child?
The footage from the family is pretty much everything you see in the film up to the point when Nirvana broke. One of the things we’ve never called attention to is that the first video-recorded interview with Nirvana is seen in our film for the first time publicily. That comes in about an hour into the film. And that had never been seen before. So it’s not really up to The Teen Spirit video when we started dealing with imagery that has been accessible. Then when you get through the Nevermind period once again you’re back in this world of never-been-seen-before material. It was important for us to access that stuff because that’s where I felt I was able to access a part of Kurt that was never presented to the public.
How did you go about putting all the material together?
My process for all my films is the same – what I do is about a year before I plan to enter the edit room I engage with archivists who spend the bulk of that year collecting every piece of media that exists on the subject. About 9 months into that I bring in an assistant editor who starts to organise the footage chronologically and then I sit down with an editor and screen through everything, both audio and visual – in this way I find that certain themes start to emerge. With this film, that meant starting with footage of Kurt when he was 6 months old and taking it all the way to the end.
As a result of this, it’s a particularly revealing and intimate film.
The intimacy is unfiltered. It’s not Kurt performing for the media – these are elements created by himself or filmed by his family or close friends. So there’s an intimacy in how this work was produced that I think translated quite well in the broader context of the film.
Were you always planning to have the animated sequences or is that something that developed over time?
I knew we were going to have to animate the journals but I never intended to have an animated depiction of Kurt. What happened was we cut the film with the audio and when I experienced those scenes with nothing but a blank screen it was riveting and I loved the idea of being able to visualise it myself but obviously you can’t do that for 7 minutes in the movie. I needed to bring that story to life. It’s specific to the subject matter – in this case there’s a kind of formalism to those scenes that sort of exist outside of the film – the only other place where you see those kind of compositions are in the interviews – and that’s very deliberate because in those sequences where we animate Kurt we are, in a sense, stepping out of Kurt’s point of view, in the sense that we are creating those images. The same can be said for the interviews, which again kind of exist outside the body of the film. The body of the film is Kurt’s interior journey through life as depicted through his art – whether that be sound collage, his music , paintings or what have you. And this is contextualized by those people who were most intimate with Kurt Cobain during his lifetime.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is in cinemas now.